Box Office

A Wrinkle in Time’s Box Office: They Can’t All Be Black Panther

Ava DuVernay knew A Wrinkle in Time wasn’t going to be the movie to push T’Challa from the box office throne, and she was right. Wrinkle in Time, the first film with a budget of $100 million or above to be directed by a black woman, grossed $33m this weekend to Black Panther’s $40.9m.

Upside: The top two films at the box office right now were directed by people of color.

Downside: Unless it has a near-historic Jumanji/Greatest Showman-like run in it, Wrinkle in Time’s $33m opening is not really big enough for a movie that cost that much to make and market.

Here’s Forbes’ breakdown of what might be in store for Wrinkle:

If it’s lucky, it’ll leg it out like the other March Disney biggies (Alice in Wonderland, Oz: The Great and Powerful, etc.) and make it to $97m domestic. If it’s not lucky, it’ll flameout like Where the Wild Things Are which snagged a $32m debut weekend but then ended with just $77m domestic in late 2009. But with a B CinemaScore, a 3.2x multiplier (not great for a leggy kid flick) and mediocre reviews, well, let’s hope for the best…

Another obvious comp: Tomorrowland, Brad Bird’s similarly teen girl-led, let’s save the world through sheer optimism romp that opened to $32m, a B CinemaScore, and legged it to just $93m domestic. Tomorrowland also cost nearly twice as much to make as Wrinkle, though ($190m versus $103m budget), and only ever made it to $200m worldwide. So, it could be worse.

How will Wrinkle fare overseas? It’s going to be a minute before we find out. A somewhat slow international roll-out is planned all the way through the end of April, and the early returns aren’t exactly encouraging. Wrinkle grossed just south of $7m from a handful of countries this weekend, with Russia being the biggest of the bunch.

For now, Wrinkle is a disappointment, both financially and critically – poor reviews, low audience approval, mediocre CinemaScore grade from opening night audiences. It’s a multicultural, less overtly Christian-leaning version of Madeleine L’Engle’s novel, and it plays like a repeat of Tomorrowland’s admirable, but hard-to-market ethos instead of a more conventional action-adventure narrative.

But, but, but….

It is led by a young black girl (Storm Reid) and more or less features Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling as demigods under Oprah’s beaming God. It was co-written by the same woman, Jennifer Lee, who wrote and co-directed Frozen. Plus, Chris Pine, Michael Pena, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Filipino child actor Deric McCabe are in it. Not quite the full diversity rainbow, sure, but it’s as close as any movie has come in recent memory.

That in and of itself, however, does not a good movie or big hit make. Diversity sells at the box office, but you know what sells even better these days? Brands, sequels, and superhero movies. Wrinkle in Time technically ticks one of those boxes, since it is based on a book, but so are Oz: The Great and Powerful, Where the Wild Things Are, John Carter, Ender’s Game, and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Four of those movies are among the bigger money losers in recent memory. Having a built-in audience of book readers only goes so far, particularly if the book (or book series) in question is so old most kids haven’t heard of it.

You would think Wrinkle, however, has another brand at its disposable, namely Disney. That is true, but we forget how fallible Disney is when it’s not focused on Marvel, Star Wars, animation, or live action adaptations of animated classics.

Again, Forbes:

Their attempts to recreate the success of Pirates of the Caribbean led to whiffs like Prince of Persia, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, John Carter and The Lone Ranger. Non-IP like Finest Hours and Queen Of Katwe stumbled in 2016. When you discuss big-budget, live-action would-be franchises, they haven’t had a huge non-sequel hit not based on one of their animated flicks since National Treasure in 2004.

Thanks to Marvel and the rest, Disney is just more able to weather those kinds of losses than their competitors at Universal, WB, and Fox. In this particular case, though, Disney is its own competition since it is Black Panther’s continued historic run which can be partially blamed for kneecapping Wrinkle’s opening.

DuVernay saw that coming, telling the New York Times in an interview last week, “I’ll tell you right now. We are not going to be No. 1 this weekend because there is a cultural movement that is so important to me and so many people called Black Panther, and it is still moving and breathing in the world. I am not crying over spilt milk.”

Disney tried its best to have Wrinkle piggyback off of Black Panther’s success. For example, a special Wrinkle in Time production video was attached to all opening-weekend screenings of Black Panther, which gave Disney a direct line to the largest share of black people to ever see a superhero movie. The video is decidedly light on plot details. Instead, it is a glossy collection of making-of moments accompanied by talking head segments which play the “inclusion” card very, very hard with an extra emphasis on DuVernay’s leadership and vision.

Here you are, Black Panther fans: a proud reminder that a black woman is the first to do something white dudes have been allowed to do for decades, and she’s absolutely killing it. Don’t you want to show up to support that?

How did that work out for them?

Well, at least they got such a large female turnout. Oz the Great and Powerful and Tomorrowland each leaned more 50/50 female/male on that front.

Contrast that with Black Panther‘s marketing which never really leaned into the political or social messaging of the film or production and instead pitched what looked like a really good Marvel movie that happened to feature an entirely black cast + Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis.

Truthfully, the “we need to support diversity-oriented movies if we ever expect to see more of them” movement is often at odds with the “I’m not seeing it if RottenTomatoes says it sucks” contingent. We have seen this time and time again now. Heck, even sometimes when RT does offer its a stamp of approval, as was the case with the female-directed, black-led Detroit, audiences still don’t show up.

On top of that, even Disney has struggled in recent years when trying to push anything not preceded by the Marvel, LucasFilm, Pixar, or Disney Animation Studios logo, and the other studios have similarly struck out while trying to make money on fantasy adventure stories (Jack the Giant Slayer, anyone?). Why, really, should Wrinkle‘s rough start be that surprising?

DeVernay, in her Times interview, expressed the healthiest view on this: “As an artist, I can’t be concerned with the first three days at the box office.” If the work is good enough, it will find its audience, even if that doesn’t happen until after it has left theaters.

Disney, on the other hand, isn’t quite as free to be so disinterested in a film’s first three days.Then again, Black Panther did just cross a billion globally. When that’s the world you live in, missing on Wrinkle in Time isn’t going to throw too big of a, ahem, wrinkle into your quarterly profits.

Sources: NYTimes, Forbes, THR


  1. Wrinkle in Time was basically another Ghostbusters. Here is what I mean by this: Sony’s marketing of Ghostbusters was largely about the all female cast. They tried to make Ghostbusters a political event, but, well, it is the fans who decide which property is politically relevant and which isn’t and putting so much emphasis on “look how relevant we are” leads more likely to the audience staying away because it feels manipulated. Whereas something like Black Panther simply presented itself as yet another MCU movie, but based on something which just happened to speak to the black community.

    To be fair, most of the Wrinkle in Time marketing didn’t put much emphasis on the diversity aspect. But I am one of those people who happen to love Wrinkle in Time and my fear was from the get go that they miss the actual message of the book and turn it into a standard “love yourself” Disney plot. Which is fine, but the book is way more challenging than that. And once you remove that aspect, you end up with a fairly run of the mill story with some really confusing aspects in it.

    Most likely a Wrinkle in Time would have failed either way, because if they had been gutsy enough to stick to the messages, I am not sure if the audience had truly appreciated it. But as it is, not even the fanbase was convinced.

    1. Diversity can’t be your first foot forward in film marketing. If you make something look like “Diversity: The Movie” it instantly becomes polarized; if you make something look like a good movie AND it just happens to be history-setting in other areas then audiences will go for it. WB could have easily run similar motivational-leaning ads for Wonder Woman, emphasizing Patty Jenkins’ historic gig as director, and maybe they did but I never saw them in a theater in front of something like Black Panther.

      But, also, in this case the ads also made it clear that through the simple case of race-switching almost all of the characters they were changing the book. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but it instantly alerts you that race might not be the only thing they change. And, as you pointed, messing around with the text of Wrinkle in Time risks turning it into a trite, uninteresting narrative.

      1. Honestly, my main issue wasn’t even necessarily the skin colour (except for Calvin, whose Irish heritage is actually quite important in the third book). It was the age of the angles/saints whatever (who are supposed to be elderly and weird looking, not Oprah Winfried) and that everyone was too good looking. Also, Charles Wallace is supposed to be a toddler.

      2. I don’t have an issue with the skin color, either, although I know some have. My point was simply that once you see that as a fan of the books you might be excited or upset but you’ll also then want to know what else did they change – is this just a change because the character didn’t actually didn’t need to be white, or is it a canary in the coal mine warning about larger alterations afoot.

        “Also, Charles Wallace is supposed to be a toddler.”

        Yeah, I noticed that, too.

        Honestly, the whole film doesn’t look anything like I imagined it would when I read the first book in grade school. I’m also a straight, white dude. So, my worldview and imagination are obviously going to differ from DuVernay’s, but when I pictured the book in my head it certainly didn’t come off so much like What Dreams May Come meets Oz the Great and Powerful meets 2018 diversity. So, for quite while with this project I’ve had to struggle to get past that book reader vs. film viewer conundrum of, “Yeah, that’s not at all how I pictured it.”

        Some of the changes are absolutely for the better and blow away what 10-year-old me imagined. Others, though, just don’t feel quite like A Wrinkle in Time to me.

  2. I’m going to wager that any movie which came out near the time of Black Panther was probably not going to do very well. We tried to hype up Proud Mary,which also had some firsts in it too, but I think that movie came out too close to Panther, and so did this one, although there may be nothing actually bad with the film.

    Sometimes it’s all about timing and I feel like in this case, if this movie had been released maybe in late summer or something, it would’ve done much better. My mom is still thinking about Panther ,and she saw this two weeks ago. I think a lot of people are still stuck on that movie and aren’t even thinking about spending money on anything else right now.

    1. “I think a lot of people are still stuck on that movie and aren’t even thinking about spending money on anything else right now.”

      The fact that it made over $40m in its fourth weekend, the third best showing for a fourth weekend behind only Avatar and Force Awakens and actually ahead of The Avengers, speaks to that.

      And DuVernay certainly sensed that was coming and didn’t seem too bothered by it.

  3. Great points that diversity ALONE cannot be the selling factor. I am so curious to see this movie – I devoured the book many times growing up! While it may not make a ton of money, some of the best movies have had better success when they are released afterwards…Maybe that will be true for A Wrinkle in Time, too, though I hope not! 🙂

    1. “While it may not make a ton of money, some of the best movies have had better success when they are released afterwards…Maybe that will be true for A Wrinkle in Time”

      Exactly. That’s what I was hinting at near the end there with the quote from DuVernay about refusing to measure her worth as an artist in three-days of box office. Even if Wrinkle struggles to turn it around financially after this opening, it will still be on some streaming service by the end of the year, and its target audience of kids and people who read and love the books will be able to find it eventually. It strikes me as the kind of movie which will indeed find that audience, just maybe not in the theaters, not with Black Panther still around.

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